Doctor Who episode 40: The Tyrant of France (29/8/1964)

This is a much better episode than last week. It picks up from the cliffhanger with the Doctor brought before Robespierre to explain the dismal results of the reign of terror in his province. But, figuring out that attack is the best form of defence, the Doctor immediately challenges Robespierre on the situation in Paris, putting the tyrant of France on the back foot and forcing him to justify the glut of executions. In so doing, the Doctor unmasks Robespierre’s insane, paranoid control freakery. Many more diabolical masterminds – Davros, the Pirate Captain, Sharaz Jek – will be similarly confronted in the future, and with the same result. It’s an excellent scene, with a genuine sense of danger (will the Doctor push the madman too far?), and is the shape of things to come.

Robespierre’s paranoia is mirrored by the sickness infecting Paris – no-one entirely trusts anyone else, and most of the characters seem ready to manipulate or sell out their friends and neighbours. Leon, who spent the last part of the previous episode and the first part of this one plying Barbara with wine, sets both her and Ian up. A physician, supposed to be helping, hands over Susan and Barbara to the jailer. The shopkeeper sells out the Doctor to Lemaitre, who then manipulates the Doctor and Barbara into revealing their relationship. In such a backstabbing society, it’s no wonder that Jules and Jean prefer to bash Ian over the head first and ask questions later. One wrong word could mean death.

Once again, Hartnell gets all the best moments, although Hill is as impressive as ever. It’s good that Spooner subverts what looks like another love story for her (a mutual admiration with Leon, much to Danielle’s chagrin), by having it all a ruse by Leon to win her trust. I believe behind the scenes there were ongoing discussions about when Hill was going to be written out, which I imagine is why the production staff are so coy for so long about her relationship with Ian (the easy way to write her out is for another Alydon or Leon character to sweep her off her feet, which would be much harder if she’s too obviously coupled with Ian).

William Russell and Carole Ann Ford are left with the thankless jobs. Russell has to deliver all the stodgy exposition about James Stirling, while Susan’s utter uselessness and flu symptoms are the plot complication that allows her and Barbara to fall back into the hands of their enemies. By this point, Susan’s character is pretty much a write off, but it must have been galling for Russell, who started off as the hero, to be left with increasingly prosaic material.

Elsewhere, Spooner maintains the wit. There’s a lot of drinking – Barbara is plied with wine, Susan is given brandy, Ian is given wine to loosen his tongue, and is soon declaring, ‘This calls for another drink. Oh, Barbara, just in time!’ And this after Ian calming the Doctor with the promise of drink in the first episode. This must be one of the booziest stories ever. There’s also a very funny line about the waiting times at doctors’ surgeries: ‘It is not unusual to be kept waiting at the physician.’


Next episode: A Bargain of Necessity

The Tyrant of France no longer exists. Not in any of its regenerations. This review is courtesy of the excellent Loose Cannon reconstruction


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